Preface to the Exhibition

It is with the greatest pleasure that I write the preface to this exhibition. My visit to Lampeter is definitely one of the highlights of my walk around the borders and coast of Wales, both for the warmth of the welcome I received from everyone at Trinity St Davids and the extraordinary exhibition prepared by Sarah Roberts from the Roderic Bowen Library and Archives, which has been preserved in this online exhibition.

Particular highlights of the exhibition included the blister cure (see Tourist Trail), the 'last of the beavers' note on the Teifi (see Abraham Ortelius) and the little strips of cloth bound lead weights. The latter were not strictly part of the exhibition, simply there to keep the books open on the right pages; however, I think they will appeal to every bibliophile who has struggled to read books whilst eating, but of course would never break the spine of even the trashiest novel.

If there was one high point it was seeing the page that George Borrow described as bearing 'the marks of blood' of massacred monks, which turned out to be claret (see Monks, Murder and Manuscripts). The joy in this is partly the pricking of Borrow's occasional pomposity, but far more. For all his foibles Borrow is a larger than life character and a master walker even by the standards of the early 19th century. The hardback copy of Wild Wales that I had with me around Wales was given me by friends in Aberystwyth in readiness for the walk. So there was perfection in the fitness, the patterning, the linking across years, knowing that the very page that was in front of me was the page that Borrow looked at on his visit to Lampeter two hundred years before.

Reading the draft text of the exhibition also reminded me of things I had forgotten, or missed on the first view, or resonated with other incidents during my walk. Although the exhibition is a tiny sample of the richness in the Roderic Bowen Archives, it was still a lot to take in in a short visit.

The exhibition could hardly start anywhere else than with Gerald of Wales, and his introduction to Journey through Walescould easily apply to my own journey albeit 900 years later. Gerald fought long, though unsuccessfully, against the Anglicisation of the Church in Wales, a conflict that has not failed to send its ripples through Lampeter over the years1.

I, of course, loved the maps of Wales, but noted especially the early depth charts around Anglesey (see Hydrographical Mapping) which reminded me of my visit to the Lifeboat Station at Moelfre and the long history of wrecks, of lives lost and lives saved.

Camden's description of "small artificial mounts" along Offa's Dyke (see Offa’s Dyke: Monument, Myth and Muse) seemed in contradiction to modern guides, which suggest there are no known gateways or crossing points of the dyke. Maybe Camden's mounds are now believed to be of a different age, or maybe they have been forgotten over the years. They certainly reminded me of the farms that conveniently straddled the dyke, rather than sitting to one side ... no remains of gateways?

As I travelled up the Wye I had been expecting a change from the 19th and 20th century industrial decay of the South Wales coast to a medieval landscape of castles and ancient woodland, and so had been surprised at the Wye's industrial past. It was fascinating that even the tourist manuals of the early 18th century (see Wales and the Grand Tour), talked of picturesque factories alongside the ruined abbeys and castles.

Some things seem timeless, not least Nicholson (of the blister cure), who advises that the best walking is 'not limited to time' (see The Tourist Trail); such an important lesson since I found myself constantly hurrying past things as I was constrained by a schedule. I was also amused by Sinclair's warning against walking with sketchers or botanists, which reminded me of the modern aphorism that walking with a photographer is like walking with a dog that keeps wanting to smell each tree; I think of the 250, 350, 450 and on one occasion 647 photographs a day that I have been taking.

Some of the joy of walking is in the physical surroundings, and the many well-known views. Having read Newell's description of precisely where to sketch Laugharne Castle, I want to go back, to see if the markers are still there, but does the desire to 'capture' scenes, whether in sketchbook, celluloid or JPEG image, also distance you from the landscape?

In the past, as now, it is often the people and incidents along the way that are most memorable. Pugh's painting of "The Infant Hercules" seems in rather bad taste by modern standards, but then I think of my own blog comments about differing body mass indices between different beaches, and the crucial importance of encouraging exercise in an age of childhood obesity, so maybe Pugh has something to tell us today.

I walked past Ogmore Castle and the sea beyond, but the village women did not come out to bath naked and nymph-like as they did when Donovan passed by in 1804. The closest was a few miles west, between Margham and Porthcawl where two men in their sixties stood saggy and wrinkled after skinny-dipping, hardly nymph-like, or the photograph I took of a lone walker on the beach east of Llantwit Major, where only later did I notice the bare buttock below the rucksack.

But let us end as we began, with Gerald of Wales, who amongst the 'noteworthy events' and 'pathless places' also wrote about the 'witty things' spoken between him and his companions. I walked alone, and so maybe appreciated all the more the witty repartee, moments of kindness, and warmth of welcome that I encountered along the way, not least at Lampeter, oldest seat of university education in Wales.

Alan Dix, 21st August 2013

1. D. P Davies, 2002. “Principals in Practice”, Chapter 11 in A Bold Imagining: University of Wales Lampeter, glimpses of an unfolding vision 1827-2002, K. Robbins and J. Morgan-Guy (eds.), University of Wales Lampeter, p.102.